by Christine Tully Aranza
More than two years ago when we were just starting to source plants for our greenhouse we found the seed suppliers ( Johnny’s & Seed Savers have become favorites) and greenhouses (Yay Richter’s) that would supply our starter plants. One of our true finds, was The Chiliwoman. One look at the list of peppers available on her site and we were truly hooked. A humble, diminutive women who shows her true passion as soon as you start talking Chilis with her, she has collected a catalogue of seeds that is anything but humble. Located in a college town (Bloomington, IN) she has enlisted professors, chefs and other adventurers to bring back a phenomenal variety of seeds from the four corners of the earth.
Beginning early in the season she plant what will be come a capsicum tour de force that soon springs forth a dizzying array of seedlings. We visited her in early may to pick up our order of two dozen Padron Peppers & two dozen Piri Piris. Once we entered her greenhouse however it became instantly clear we would be leaving with a lot more. The hubs did some quick math and he estimated she had about 16,000 seedlings happily growing in the Indiana sun.
The interesting thing about Chilis is that they all come from one wild species that is native to Central & South America and perhaps dating back as far as 7000 BCE, there is evidence of chilis in ancient Mexican and Aztec cultures. All coming from the same base plant leads to a certain uniformity in the look of the seedlings. They don’t reveal their true variety until mid to late season when the plants begin to show their personality and the most dramatic phase happening in the late season, when they fruit and show off with a brilliant array of shapes, colors & textures. Only then do they begin to hint at the wild variety of flavors they bring to cuisine around the globe. If you like the spicy stuff though chilis are a fascinating addition to any garden and relatively easy to grow. If you have a prolific source for seedlings you can tailor the plants you grow to your palate.
The name pepper is a bit of a misnomer thanks to Columbus who thought he had discovered black pepper a highly prized & expensive spice at the time. From there Spanish and Portuguese ships spread the cultivation of peppers throughout Europe. No doubt the heat known as Capsicum is what confused him.
Obviously, there is an expanse of chilis used in the cuisines of India and Asia as well although less is known about their evolution. In fact trying to research some of the varieties we grew this year for origin and culinary use, especially those from Asia & South America proved a challenge. The definitive chili resource book has yet to be written.
Getting back to our visit to Susan a.k.a. the Chiliwoman. As soon as we cast our eyes on her jewelbox of chilis, I asked her to put together two flats of her favorites for us to culitivate. She happily obliged and set about creating a fantastic set of flats. We divided the spoils which included varieties from the seven continents and grew some at home, some at the farm, gave a few to a fellow passionate gardening and restaurant guest (she reciprocates often). All of the plants were amazing healthy and prolific.
At the restaurant we are growning the Piri Piris (for hot sauce), Padrons(for tapas) and some Tomatillos (just cause we love them)! At home we have Korean variety such as Ku Chu, Chinese varieties; Kentang, Mongolian & Szechuan, Thai Yellow, mild Spanish Piment Mesa (yellow & red), Ferehozen Paprika and South American varieties Del Aqua, Chaco & Permavehla – cute little peppers that look like mini Butternut Squash and have a medium heat.
We have begun harvesting and added them to dishes at the restaurant, jarring, pickling, drying and grinding. How great to have our own paprika, fresh ground from our own plants! The Chiliwoman’s plants were all amazingly healthy and fared very well. Needless to say we are completely hooked and plan on expanding our chili program & research in the next growing season, our request list for 2014 is only growing now.
The great thing is you can access her plants too. If you like to road trip, it’s worth the trip. Call first or drop an email, she does a lot of local markets and events during the season. If you can’t make it she takes email orders & ships too. Hard to believe one gal can pull this off every year but she does. Susan you are one of our culinary heroes. Check out the site you won’t be sorry you did and come on in to sample some of what we have been doing with our spoils.